In the late 1980s, political scientist Joseph Nye Jr. coined the term soft power. He defined it as it as a country’s ability to influence others without resorting to coercive pressure. Over the years, the term has been used to connote a country brand’s ability to create a positive perception and make it attractive in many ways. According to Masterclass, soft power can influence in five areas: business & trade, culture, education, governance and global diplomacy. Many refer to the popularity of India’s films, film stars and Hindi film music globally as an example of India’s soft power. And it’s not a recent phenomenon- Raj Kapoor’s films & songs were said to be popular in Russia.
Another way to think of soft power is the set of dominant imageries, perceptions and feelings that come to mind of a foreigner (who has never visited India). Such a combination has not always been positive (or totally accurate) about India. ‘Land of snake charmers’, ‘elephants on the road’, poverty & squalor have been a few rather undesirable perceptions about the country brand. Of course along with these, we’ve had our ancient civilisation, heritage, dance forms, yoga, tourist landmarks, natural beauty and more as talking points or perceptions about the brand. Over the last few years, our expertise in IT services may have also contributed to positive feelings towards the country brand.
But there is no denying that some are happy with our film culture (especially Bollywood) as our only calling card on the world stage. There is disproportionate attention given to the Hindi film industry’s events or its output (often crass) being ‘adopted’ on the global stage. Do we really want our country reduced to mindless song & dance from our movies. We go overboard in assuming that our soft power is at its peak if Kevin Spacey does the cringe, lungi dance.
Indian cinema is much more than the Hindi film industry, but the latter has appropriated centre stage globally. A lot more meaningful cinema is made outside of Bollywood and they too have the potential to showcase our plurality and be an arsenal in our soft power.
When it comes to tourism, chances are that a small set of same old images (including invariably the Taj Mahal) would show up as representative of India. A search for ‘India’ on an image service like Unsplash is no different – a set of usual cliches show up. It’s obvious that there’s a lot more to India than a few cliches like Bollywood & Taj Mahal. Our temple architecture is an aspect which is under-celebrated in our own country and abroad. If any other country had created the Kailasha or Kailashanatha temple (the largest of the rock-cut Hindu temples at the Ellora Caves) or the Thanjai Periya Kovil (the Big Temple in Tanjavur) also called the Brihadishvara Temple, they would have ensured that the world knows about its architectural wonder.
Yoga had that potential but for several decades we saw it being appropriated in the US by gurus such as Bikram Choudhury and others who made names for themselves. The country of origin never got its due credit. India is ranked fifth on the global list of the best cuisines for 2022. Nevertheless, our culinary diversity is another aspect which has potential to serve as an inviting, positive memory cue about the country.
However, unless we begin to take pride about our identity, history and achievements others will not. Our younger generation, especially from urban India, look up to the west as the source of all things positive – including inventions, scientific achievements, education and cultural influence. But we cannot force anyone to feel a sense of pride. The way our ancient monuments or landmarks are maintained and the creature comforts provided leave a lot to be desired still. It’s the classic ‘stimulus-response’ theory from advertising. You don’t go around saying ‘I am funny!’ if you want to be perceived that way. You crack a few jokes which can then evoke an audience reaction of ‘that’s funny!’ The way we educate, maintain and tell stories about our various positives – beyond just Bollywood & Taj Mahal should invoke a sense of pride in us. In turn that will inspire evangelists who then propagate the true ‘soft power’ potential of brand India.